Why Egypt Intensifying Its Military Modernization, Training And Exercises In MENA Regions

Abu Dhabi, UAE (GDC) — After a busy November full of military drills, not least of which took place at sea, Egypt is continuing its training efforts into December and throughout 2021, sending a message about its global reach and capabilities.

“The increased number of drills shows that the Egyptian armed forces has the capabilities to conduct all these exercises at the same time,” according to Ahmad Eliba, a defense expert at the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies. The exercises also show off Egypt’s strategic deterrence capabilities and weapons systems, he added.

Egypt intensified its military drills in November, but the country has been regularly participating in training events for some time now. In July 2019, it carried out the Eagle Salute maneuvers with the navies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. In September 2019, it participated in the Red Wave drill with the Royal Saudi Navy and the forces of some other countries bordering the Red Sea. And earlier this year, it was joined by the Royal Saudi Navy for the maritime exercise Morgan-16. Egypt is expected to join these three events during their 2021 versions.

In November 2020, the Egyptian Army carried out a joint ground and air exercise dubbed Saif Al-Arab with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and Sudan. It also carried out the joint air training exercise Nile Eagles-1 with Sudan.

It’s rare to witness an air force flying fighter jets and helicopters of different origins, but Egypt operates aircraft from Russia, China, the United States and European nations.By: Agnes Helou

Also in November, Egypt and Russia launched their Bridge of Friendship-3 exercise in the Black Sea. Egypt also teamed up with the United Kingdom for the joint T-1 exercise in the Mediterranean Sea as well as joint naval training in the Northern Mediterranean with France. Meanwhile, it joined Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Sudan and Bahrain for a naval drill dubbed Sword of Arabs at the Muhammad Naguib Military Base in northwest Egypt.

“I see the primary significance of Egypt’s recent naval drills as political, and secondarily as commercial, not military,” Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, told Defense News. “In the first case, they reflect the effort by the Sissi administration to broaden and diversify its foreign strategic relationships, partly to demonstrate that it is not wholly dependent on the U.S., but especially at this time to deepen ties with countries with which it shares hostility or at least suspicion, [like in the case] of Turkey.

“Second, by raising its naval profile in the Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea, Egypt is signaling an ability and determination to protect offshore gas fields and future pipelines to Europe that it hopes to build with other Eastern [Mediterranean] gas producers. It is also building military infrastructure such as the Berenice naval base in the Red Sea so as to demonstrate its ability to protect maritime shipping routes through the Suez Canal, in the hope of encouraging more global shipping to come through the canal.”

In late October, Egypt joined Cyprus and Greece in denouncing Turkey’s energy exploration in the Mediterranean Sea. And during a recent tripartite summit held in the Cypriot capital Nicosia involving Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and his Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades, along with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Egyptian president underlined the need to enhance the trilateral relationship.

Toward that end, a military exercise dubbed Medusa is set to take place Nov. 30-Dec. 6 that involves the three countries’ armed forces. The exercise will involve naval, air and special forces, and France and the UAE are also expected to participate.

Volatile Regions

Egypt is in a geographical position that its impossible for Egypt to avoid the multiple geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East, Mediterranean and North African regions.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey and Greece, Israel-Palestine conflicts, Yemen and Libyan conflicts are enough reasons for Egypt to enhance its training, military hardware and doctrine to face those challenges.

“I think that these maneuvers are the most important in terms of the possibility of a coalition emerging from them, a clear alliance in this region,”Eliba said, “but it is strategically concerned with a specific goal: to deal with the security arrangements in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

“Earlier drills concentrated on unifying military concepts and joint cooperation, but 2020 drills are more advanced in terms of training programs with more interactive exercises to counter threats and risks,” he added.

To keep up with regional threats, the Egyptian military began to “develop and raise the comprehensive combat competence of its various branches, weapons and departments,” according to Mohamed al-Kenany, a military affairs researcher and defense analyst at the Cairo-based Arab Forum for Analyzing Iranian Policies.

“This included intensifying joint exercises with allied countries to enhance military cooperation and exchange experiences; achieving operational compatibility in any tasks and operations that may take place with partners against any of the common threats; [and] following the latest innovations in weapons systems, combat methods, training, concepts of modern warfare, and dealing with identical and asymmetric threats,” al-Kenany explained.

He said Egypt benefits from participating in a number of drills in a single month because it accelerates its war fighters’ understanding of and assimilation with new combat platforms that have been ordered or recently entered service. The exercises also provide experience with the concept of a “Smart Army,” in which quality is more important than quantity.

“The British Navy began to implement this technique through ‘Littoral Response Group-Experimentation,’ [or] LRG-X, a task group conducting [operations] for three months at the Mediterranean Sea to test the concepts of [a] future commando force and the littoral strike group — the same group that participated in the T-1 amphibious training with the Egyptian Navy,” al-Kenany said. “This could help create a perception of an advanced marine corps born in the Egyptian naval special forces units, or the application of completely new tactics and methods in special missions and amphibious landing missions, and methods of attacking and storming coastal targets that include the use of advanced technologies represented in the marine, air and land platforms [as well as] unmanned, network-centric communications and modern live-imaging systems.”

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Beyond training

Al-Kenany also noted that the Egyptian Navy is working on a three-part development plan: training, construction and armament.

The construction piece consists of establishing new and efficient naval bases, further developing existing bases, and strengthening the infrastructure of all naval facilities to accommodate new naval vessels, advanced training methods and simulators.

The armament aspect includes ordering surface combat ships and submarines. This effort has so far produced contracts for:

  • Two Mistral helicopter carriers.
  • Four Gowind 2500 corvettes.
  • An Aquitaine-class FREMM frigate from France.
  • Two Bergamini-class FREMM frigates from Italy.
  • Four MEKO A-200 frigates, four Type-209/1400mod submarines
  • Ten patrol and coastal protection boats from Germany.
  • Ambassador MK III missile boat and coastal patrol boats made by Swiftship in the United States.
  • 24 Dassault Rafale fighter jets and option to buy 12 more from France
  • 21 Su-35 fighter jets from Russia
  • 46 MiG-29M2 fighter jets from Russia
  • 24 Apache helicopters

In addition, al-Kenany noted that Egypt is working on technology transfer to the Alexandria shipyard, which participated in the Gowind 2500 contract, three of which were built locally. The shipyard will also host the construction of the MEKO A-200 frigate.

“And current talks are underway with the German Lürssen Shipbuilding Company to transfer shipbuilding technology to Egypt,” he added.

The Egyptian Gamal Abdl “Nasser” (formally named “Vladivostok”) Mistral-class ship leaves the harbor of Saint-Nazaire, western France, on June 12, 2016. It was the first of two Mistral-class ships sold by France to Egypt. (Jean-Sebastien Ebrard/AFP via Getty Images)

Egypt’s existing and forthcoming defensive systems will likely be used to protect offshore rigs and patrol the country’s maritime economic zone using ships that can defend themselves, in contrast to lighter coast guard vessels, Sayigh said. “This is presumably also the purpose of acquiring submarines,” he added.

Furthermore, increasing the number of drills and diversifying them in terms of location to partner countries not only benefits Egypt but also its Middle East allies. If Egypt is needed in a naval confrontation between Iran and its neighbors, the Egyptian Navy will not hesitate to assist its allies against Tehran, according to al-Kenany.

“Dealing with the Iranian maritime threat requires the presence of a large naval force with a high-fire density,” he said, adding that even if Iran does not have heavy and modern naval units, its Revolutionary Guard still poses a threat to corvettes, frigates, destroyers and other large warships, thanks to fast and lightweight boats equipped with missiles.

“Medium-range and anti-ship torpedoes as well as the unmanned suicide boats — also the midget submarine, which also pose a great danger from the depths — these pieces, despite their small sizes, [are dangerous because of their] huge numbers and [because] the radar, thermal and acoustic signature [is] very low, which makes it difficult to detect [them] early and at sufficient and safe distances,” al-Kenany explained.

In addition, Iran’s coastal and land-based missile platforms pose a danger to warships because of their range, he added.

“This is the reason lying behind the need for a large naval force with high-fire density, and of course integrated monitoring, early warning, [and] command-and-control capabilities with enhanced air cover to deal with these asymmetric threats in the best way.”

El-Sisi Factor

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi talks to the media in 2015 [File: Middle East News Agency via AFP]

President El-Sisi appointed a new minister of defence in 2018 without the public approval of SCAF, despite the constitution at the time stipulating the appointment could not be made without it.

The examples are part of a general trend that has seen el-Sisi replace more than 130 high-ranking state and military officials since 2017. In addition to those mentioned above, these include the interior minister and the army chief of staff. El-Sisi’s sons, Mustafa and Mahmoud, have also been appointed to senior intelligence positions.

Crucial military role

The military has historically been popular in Egypt, especially among nationalist circles, with the army playing a hugely important role in the country’s history.

Then-General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power from democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 [File: Mohamed Abd el-Ghany/Reuters]

In 1952, a group of officers – including a future president, Gamal Abdel Nasser – overthrew Egypt’s monarchy and ushered in a republic. Despite the military’s poor performance in the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967, demonstrators came out in support of Nasser after he offered to resign, and the military’s more positive showing in the war in October 1973 left many Egyptians with a sense of pride.

This carried on to the 2011 revolution when the chant “the people and the army are one hand” was among the most popular, particularly after the army ruled out the use of force against protesters and declared that it respected “the legitimate rights of the people”.

In addition, the power of the military in Egypt can be gauged from the fact that every non-interim president of Egypt, with the exception of Morsi, has had a military background.

This is perhaps why el-Sisi views the military as the institution with the most potential to end his rule, even if, currently, the president appears to have few instances of real opposition from the army.

“We lack clear evidence of opposition in the military,” Yezid Sayegh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Al Jazeera.

“It is more useful to think of this in terms of different emphasis on priorities and perceptions of whether military involvement in politics and the economy is good for its professional development or not.

“The military has always had officer cliques and informal networks based on personal relationships or loyalty to different branches of service, and so some officers may be unhappy about Sisi’s promotion of other officers who they regard as competitors. My point is that this does not amount to opposition.”

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